Why Projects Fail – The Early Indicators

I am sure you have experienced a project that is behind on delivering to its deadlines or delivering to the level of quality that is lower than expected.

If you are the project manager of this challenged project, it is not a good place to be. However there are signs that can help identify early issues, before they become a problem.

Over the next couple of months I would like to outline my view on these early indicators. What to look out for before it’s too late and your project is labelled a “troubled project” and advice on how to manage some of the challenges.

The categories of problem areas (in no particular order) across the project life-cycle of why projects fail are:

  • Change Control
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Financial Management
  • Requirements, Architecture & Data
  • Communications Management
  • Technical Issues
  • Contractual Issues
  • Planning
  • Management / Governance

Change Control

A clear business driver for the project and a defined, widely communicated and understood change management process is needed

If you start by looking at the scope that will help with change management.


Is the scope clear, understood and reasonable?  And is it stable?

Red flags are:

  • If the scope not clearly defined, quantified
  • What is both in and out of scope is not run clear, approved by the stakeholders and understood by the project team

Change control

Are all changes being documented and tracked?

A high volume of change is often a worrying sign in itself. A higher concern is if a well-managed change log is not in place, as this would suggest that scope is not being managed.

If the change volume is still high 2 weeks before User Acceptance Testing (UAT)

Definition: Scope Creep – not signed off and managed change to the project

Stakeholder Management

  • Has the project manager ever run a project of this size / nature before?
  • Are the stakeholders and sponsor really clear on their business case for running the project? Is there a genuine sense of urgency?
  • Are senior stakeholders close to the project and being kept aware of it’ status? If not, start to worry.
  • This one’s a bit subjective, but in your judgement are the stakeholder expectations for the project outcomes reasonable?
  • Expected stakeholder target delivery date is unrealistic regardless of development estimates and is not willing to negotiate
  • An ‘enterprise’ Data Warehouse project requires someone to insist that the enterprise come together in the way it measures its performance. It needs both negotiation and insistence.
  • Project sponsor is not 100% committed to project or project funding is not fully secured

Financial Management

Some financial indicators and questions that you would look out for on any project during delivery reviews.

  • Check the project plan
  • Are we completing on time?
  • How do we know the work is completed?
  • Has it been signed off?
  • Has it been through quality review or been tested in any way?
  • Are there any activities running late? Is there a plan to complete?
  • If we are in test phase – what is the run rate for tests, are there any blockers, what is the defect fix rate? – would indicate whether you are going to complete testing or if there are any major quality issues
  • Accuracy of forecasting from one month to the next. Are the actual costs as planned?
  • Is the team delivering to our milestones?
  • Are deliverables on time and being signed off?
  • Is the effort planned to use to meet the milestones in line with what is expected at this point in time or are costs and resources being eaten up quicker than planned
  • Is the budget still sufficient to complete the project?

Look out for my next post at the end of March where I will cover:

  • Requirements, Architecture & Data
  • Communications Management
  • Technical Issues
  • Contractual Issues
  • Planning
  • Management / Governance

In the meantime share your experiences and lessons learnt on how to make projects successful.


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